Although a potential Biden presidency has been explicit about how it wishes to engage with Iran, its choices are far from straightforward.
US–Iran relations are at a standstill. Washington’s push in September to finally break up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the nuclear deal concluded under President Barack Obama in 2015 – through an extension of the UN arms embargo on Iran was the last hurrah for the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy of the Trump presidency. With European persuasion, Tehran has adopted a posture of ‘strategic patience’, which consists of neither engaging with nor reacting to US moves, and which is assumed to be valid at least until the presidential elections next week.
Scenarios After a Potential Trump Victory
There is a chance President Donald Trump will win a second term. In that case, Iran could face one of two scenarios. First, Trump could continue with his maximum pressure policies. But there is also the possibility that, relieved of re-election concerns and focused on his legacy, he will adopt a credible diplomatic strategy to engage Tehran. The first course could lead to open conflict between the two countries. However, it is also possible that Iran will come to the conclusion that it will have to talk to engage with Trump in order to relieve economic pressure. Iran would, however, most likely agree only to indirect de-escalation talks.
Trump will want direct talks and a large deal, but he will have to settle – at least at the outset – for indirect talks through an intermediary in order to get over the overhang of maximum pressure and the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani earlier this year. In Tehran, many think only Russian President Vladimir Putin has the trust of both Trump and the Iranian Supreme Leader to perform that role. Assuming that Trump has an aversion to going to war, Iran will likely threaten conflict and nuclear breakout to compel him to make serious concessions.
Choices Facing a Biden Presidency
If Joe Biden wins the US elections next week, his administration is expected to follow the course laid out in his September CNN opinion article and interview: a US return to the JCPOA deal, coupled with the expectation that Iran will resume its own full compliance with that agreement. The US would then seek further talks on expanding the scope of the JCPOA, and also address broader regional security issues. Many in Washington see this as too optimistic, expecting that Congress and the US’s Middle East allies will object, or demand that Washington uses the leverage built up by Trump to extract immediate concessions from Tehran. These arguments have already soured the mood in Tehran: Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Iran’s UN Ambassador Majid Takht-Ravanchi have said that Iran expects compensation for the economic damage it has suffered since the US’s departure from the JCPOA.
An important factor will be the size of a Biden victory. A narrow victory – and if Republicans make gains in the House of Representatives or hold on to the Senate – followed by a contentious interregnum between 3 November and 20 January will significantly limit the new president’s ability to make bold foreign policy moves. The White House would then be inclined to revert to a safe policy position on Iran, although the offer of ‘compliance for compliance’ will then be a slow process, the JCPOA will continue to teeter on the edge, and the prospects for expanding it or addressing wider missile and regional issues will be remote. The result would likely be a US reliance on sanctions, and Iran may continue skirting Washington’s ‘red lines’ and exerting pressure on the US in the region to gain leverage.
If, on the other hand, Biden wins decisively – and Democrats make gains in the House and even in the Senate – then the new president will have significant room to manoeuvre from the outset. Biden would be in a position to push back against congressional resistance and pressure from allies to return the US to the JCPOA, precisely as he has pledged during the electoral campaign. Despite trepidations about Iran’s intentions, the JCPOA is a legacy of the Obama era that Trump undermined for exactly that reason. Returning to it is a powerful signal that Biden will restore Obama’s legacy. He could even announce the return to the JCPOA and the Paris Climate Accord at the same time.
The ‘Clean’ Break?
This outcome, dubbed in Washington as a ‘clean’ return to the deal by both sides, is the most positive scenario for restoring the JCPOA and laying the groundwork for expanding its scope. The quicker ‘compliance for compliance’ happens, the more Biden will be able to overcome resistance and set US–Iran relations on a constructive course. It is important to note that the course Biden adopts will likely shape the Iranian presidential elections of June 2021, which will in turn be important to Iran’s future posture.
There are important hurdles to consider. The ‘compliance for compliance’ approach assumes rapid Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, but a slow dismantling of US sanctions and designations. This would at best return the sanctions regime to its 2017 status, when Trump came to power. Iran, however, expects Biden to use executive orders to remove sanctions Trump put in place after leaving the JCPOA. Tehran may even resist fully complying with the JCPOA without economic concessions that go beyond where things stood in 2017.
The current state of debate in Tehran would suggest even more reticence. First, and although under severe economic pressure, the Iranian regime is not about to collapse. To the contrary, having survived the worst of the US’s maximum pressure attempts, it is showing a certain degree of confidence in its own resilience. Economic pressure is devastating in the long run, but Iran can live with it in the short term. Furthermore, Iran now sees China and Russia as providing it with a broader strategic option, a prop to rely on at the UN, and a counterbalance to US and European pressure. That translates into greater reluctance to quickly acquiesce.
It is true that Iran has remained in the JCPOA in the hope of fully restoring it, and its strategic patience suggests that it is hoping for a Biden victory and expecting a positive shift in US policy. Still, there is a faction in Tehran – which is quite vocal in the parliament – that wants Iran to leave the JCPOA and even the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Furthermore, even among those who support the JCPOA, there is still significant worry about Biden. Their argument is that just as Obama used his popularity with Europe and was more successful than Bush in increasing sanctions on Iran, Biden too could gain European support in isolating Iran. Those people would argue that Iran has, ironically, benefited from the fact that Trump was unpopular in Europe, and that will be reversed under Biden. Once back under the provisions of the JCPOA, Washington could therefore rally Europe to use the deal’s mechanisms against Iran. The US would, for example, have European backing in invoking UN Resolution 2231 to extend the arms embargo on Iran.
There is a strong argument in foreign policy circles in Tehran that the US should not come back to the JCPOA; instead, it should support it from the outside. The reasoning is that, if the US returns to the JCPOA, then Tehran should get curbs on US powers under the deal. Washington will not accept such demands, nor are they enforceable. They signal, however, that expeditious ‘compliance for compliance’ is unlikely. Iran would want a step-by-step approach, relying on time and displays of American good will to build trust. More worrisome for a potential Biden administration would be Tehran seeking to gain leverage during the interregnum to win concessions from the US.
Finally, many in Washington are of the view that a return to the JCPOA should be coupled with addressing Iran’s regional role – and even including Iran’s regional rivals in the talks. This will be a hurdle to restoration of the JCPOA. First, there are already too many issues on the table, and adding more actors and issues will prove counterproductive. Second, regional issues demand complex negotiations over the military balance of power in which Iran and its Arab neighbours will have to negotiate arms control and ceasefires in various conflicts.
Either way, the UK will have important stakes and a role to play in any scenario in which the US and Iran engage in diplomacy. Together with its European partners, the UK will negotiate the terms should the US return to the JCPOA. Iran continues to see the so-called ‘E3 group’ – which includes France, Germany and the UK – as the lynchpin of the JCPOA, giving it considerable clout in both Washington and Tehran.
Vali Nasr is Majid Khadduri Professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University.